It's been our longest interview for an exclusive yet, Editor John Ficarra, the mind behind MAD. And it ends in the most unexpected place; compassion.
4am isn't even an idea yet. But I'm up, I'm up. Tom Waits drones out in a part of the house that is safe enough and distant enough to not wake She Who Gently Snores. It's a vain prayer for "hair-of-the-dog". A hope that by actually playing "Little Drop of Poison" out loud the song will no longer loop on the iPod of my mind. To no avail thus far. Shakespeare arcs across neurons, "If music be the food of love, play on, something something, surfeit and die". The espresso maker seems now, defiantly somehow, to have simply outwitted my capacities at this hour. It now taunts me by refusing me the simple human dignity of a jolt of yes-please. Another minute and I'll retreat to the pure security of the french press and pre-ground beans. Something about the moment draws me back into what's on the cards for later today, writing up the MAD exclusive. Somewhere, dark and warm and safe, somewhere long before 4am, John Ficarra bestrides my thoughts like an alien armada, about to invade.
"I start my list of Dumb every year on January first", the MAD Editor said to me. "Every year I hope this will be the year that we lose interest in celebs", he said to me. There's an honesty and a poignancy and a deep human frailty to those words when they're spoken by one of the foremost satirists and one of the keenest intellects on the planet. Something about how weakness is maybe a default condition, and great work must be undertaken before it can be forestalled.
Writing about this moment now, days later, the perfect frame seems to be what William Gibson wrote in Zero History the closing chapter of his most recently trilogy. "She really got them", William Gibson writes for his fashion-model-turned-designer Mere, "I'm not sure anyone else ever did to the same extent. She got what I was trying to get away from. The seasons, the bullshit, the stuff that wore out, fell apart, wasn't real. I'd been that girl, walking across Paris, to the next shoot, no money for a Métro card, ad I'd imagined those shoes. And when you imagine something like that, you imagine a world. You imagine the world those shoes came from, and wonder if they could happen here, in this world, the one with all the bullshit".
You imagine a world.
Somewhere long before 4am, it seems John echoing in my mind delineates that precise way that "this world, the one with all the bullshit" is really the worst kind of hell, here right now. William Gibson's Mere is so hopeful, and yet, not naïvely so. "You imagine a world", she says. And then you participate in building that far-more-perfect world here in ours. "Every year I hope that this will be the year", John says, as if in a secret plea. As if some how he's realized that we've all unwittingly acknowledged we're each one of us equally complicit in doing the opposite of what Mere does. As if we're imagining a weaker world, and building it here in our own one.
The beauty of this year's "20 Dumbest" issue of MAD, the true, rare, secret beauty you won't find as easily even in other issues this decade, is how much it reads like a plea. It's everywhere to be seen in the magazine from the 20 Dumbest themselves, Charlie Sheen in "Sheen Lantern" at #6, Donald Trump (the "Birther King") at #14 for demanding proof of President Obama's citizenship, "The Amazingly Dangerous Spider-Play" at #18 asking "Is there a Dr. Octopus in the house?". It's in the "MAD Look at Protests", a beautiful commentary on the ease which we've simply defanged the very idea of protest. It's even to be found in Kit Lively and Scott Nickel's near-expressionist comic strip, "The Dork Side". A painfully wonderful use of the concept of the dark age of toymaking as a searing critique on the fractured state of the national psyche right now.
It's not a sense of loss you feel when you read MAD's "20 Dumbest of 2011". It's a sense of less. That this is far less than there ought to be, that we're in some ways contributing to this less-ness, that we're actively engineering our incapacity to "imagine a world", as William Gibson had Mere put it.
Point in case, we spend a long time speaking about Keith Olbermann. About what he represented to liberal politics, about how he became more than just another newsman, and took up the gauntlet thrown down by the Bill O'Reilly's kind of barrage-commentary. "He certainly is a smart guy, he’s a terrific writer. But he read his own press clips", John says, "He certainly self-destructed if you look at his history. It seems that wherever he works he winds up burning bridges behind him".
Listening to this interview now, I'm again struck by that pause John makes, right before diving in with "He certainly self-destructed…". A single beat in the conversation, but one that speaks volumes. Maybe it's because he's still figuring out if I can be trusted, I am press, after all. Or maybe, and this rings truer, its because John is that rare mind that thinks of consequences. The mad, crazy, zany of MAD is so flawless at times. It's the guys holding nothing back, the boys who leave everything out on the table. And yet, every issue is carved with a poignancy and a compassion that is simply incomparable. Every issue being as apposite as it is, that thoughtfulness has to come from somewhere. And it does. It's here, even when MAD's Editor speaks in casual conversation.
Nowhere is this simultaneous sense of there being less (and participating in there being less), and this sense of compassionate eye for consequence than when John speaks about Joe Paterno.
We spend what feels like the bulk of interview talking about Joe Paterno and the events that played out at Penn State. By the time we eventually do loop around to Keith Olbermann the differences between the two kinds of Dumb are stark. Talking with John, it's clear that with Olbermann there's a sense of personal failure, of self-destructiveness. Olbermann presented a very different kind of promise, the promise of being a staunch, vociferous defender of liberal values.
When we get to it, John will say, "And I think he [Olbermann] was interesting in that he gave voice when he first came on MSNBC to a progressive left wing of the electorate that nobody was speaking to and taking up their cause in forceful ways in the way that Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and [Glenn] Beck were doing and I think he suddenly just got too full of himself. And it’s something we always worry about MAD, especially when we do this '20'.
"At the end of the day we are still a humor magazine, while we do do politics and satire, we like to make people laugh. I mean that’s our number one mission, when you pick up a copy of MAD are you laughing? And I think he just sorta exploded himself, or imploded himself, and he’s marginalized himself. I used to watch his show, and my cable company doesn’t carry Current TV, so I haven’t seen one of his rants now in quite a while"
It's sense of betrayal of promise, of a failure bred in the bone because of personal weakness that I hear John identify with Olbermann. Earlier in the interview, compared with Penn State and Joe Paterno, the sense is completely different.
By now you know the story of Penn State well, even if you're disinclined towards sports. Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky was found allegedly in an inappropriate position with a minor in the Penn State locker room. The news cycle spun quickly. Evidence broke that suggested this wasn't the first such incident, that Sandusky had previously been found in similar situations. That on those occasions, Sandusky had been reported.
The target of the Dumb of Penn State, is not the evil of child molestation, but the evil of covering it up. It ranks at #3 on the list, "Covering for a Pedophile: We Are Penn State!". This Dumb is laid out as the parody of the promotional poster for the 2009 movie, The Blind Side. I remember watching it in an almost empty theater with She Who Snored Earlier In This Piece. I recall being punched in the arm in something of a preemptive strike to hide tears that were already falling. No problem, I was on the brink of tears myself.
We didn't know it back then, but The Blind Side wouldn't only be a return to form for Sandra Bullock, it would be a push beyond what we'd come to expect of her on her best day. Beyond the sappy cuteness of Demolition Man, beyond the steely-eyed grace-under-fire of Speed and later of The Net, well past the missing-in-action of Two Weeks' Notice and the hand-from-the-grave Premonition, it would be The Blind Side that would show us Sandra Bullock's true colors. She'd go on to win the Oscar for Best Actress. But for me the entire movie would always revolve around that single line, "I want to go to Old Miss, because my family went to Old Miss". The idea of recognizing the self in the other until the fear of those supposed monsters-under-the-bed simply bleeds away.
To use that movie to parody the Dumb of the events at Penn State, to use the Penn State school chant right up front, communicates some of the sense of pure disillusion in what had always been an institution. Joe Paterno, many senses, did imagine a world. It wouldn't be unfair to suggest that it is because of him, that the very idea of the college football scholarship exists in the form it does today. When Coach Joe began at Penn State he insisted on his team excelling academically as well as on the field. Honor codes were installed. Coach Joe built the professionalization of college football almost singlehandedly. The idea that this kind of thing could happen on his watch was just literally the end of a world.
"Paterno broke very late in our editorial cycle", John begins up again. "The Paterno piece we were sitting with and we knew we had to be careful with it. Because the last thing you want is for a piece to be misinterpreted, and have a reaction like , 'My God!, they're making fun of pedophilia'. That is not our intent. MAD never does a victim humor. MAD makes fun of dumb things, makes fun of people who do dumb things, who make fun of the powerful who do dumb things. And, this idea came to us, and we turned it over to Scott Bricher, and he immediately got it. He just sent us a sketch of what he was going to do, and two days later he staged the photo and sent it in. It was just right there. We were extremely pleased with the way it came out.
"If you look at it closely, he was able to project a vulnerability in the boy's body language. We wanted to have Sandusky grabbing the boy, but we didn't want him grabbing the boy's behind. We thought that was just too distasteful. But yet somehow show that he was exercising that power that adults have over kids.
"We needed to show that kids are still kids. Especially and impressionable 10-year old boy. Scott solved it by just putting Sandusky's arm around the boy's neck the way he did. He just really telegraphed the message we were trying to get at. So we're very pleased with that. I think it's probably visually the most arresting piece of the '20'. And the most damning on many levels".
I don't want to leave it there but I do. There's pith, poignance. Anything more would be entertainment. And if there's anything to know about MAD, about John and about the entire Usual Gang of Idiots, it's that while you might sometimes howl at how entertaining they are, they are not, the entertainment.